Sacred Disorder | Cliff Bostock's blog – 'Finally, I came to regard as sacred the disorder of my mind' (Rimbaud)

A rant about journalism

I’ve been involved with Creative Loafing for over 25 years. I was editor for 7 years back in the ’80s and I’ve written my food column, “Grazing,” for them for more than 20 years. “Headcase” is nearly as old.

This week, the paper laid off several of its top writers/editors. I also hear that Atlanta Magazine laid off eight people and two more quit. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s editorial staff underwent its own pogrom earlier. And today, Cox Enterprises, which owns the AJC, announced it was selling all but three of its many newspapers. The AJC is among the survivors….for now.

Magazines and newspapers have seen their ad revenues steadily decline, along with subscriptions, for quite a few years now. With the general downturn in the economy — a downturn I believe is much more severe than is being reported — things have only gotten worse. Then too there’s the fact that people are relying more and more on the Internet for their news coverage. Many publications, including Creative Loafing, are scrambling to increase their online presence.

I find this depressing, to say the least. It has never been easy in our culture to make a living as a writer. You have to really love the work to try to make a career of it. Part of my own disenchantment was always that, to make a better salary, I had to work as an editor instead of as a writer. It was a see-saw existence.

Like many people, I tried to bail. I went back to school in the ’90s for advanced degrees in psychology. The turning point for me was that, even though I always had more freelance offers than I could accept, story length was so truncated that it just wasn’t much fun to write any more. When I was writing regularly for the AJC’s Sunday magazine supplement, Atlanta Weekly, I routinely wrote pieces up to 5,000 words on some pretty damn arcane pop-culture phenomena.

That’s unheard of now outside a few national publications. People argue that you don’t need “length” to pursue a subject in depth. That’s just absurd. It may be that this shortening of news and features to sound-bytes is a reflection of what has occurred in the general culture. But the media have certainly reinforced it, so that critical thinking of any depth is virtually nonexistent in the so-called mainstream media.

I rarely watch television, but when I do, I’m always stunned by the apparent collaboration of guests and hosts to pass off fact-free assertions of opinion as “truth.” Alleged journalists repeatedly fail to confront politicians with hard questions.

There’s always the same rationale: “I’m entitled to my opinion,” people say, leaving unstated the implicit assertion, “even if it is a mixture of distortions of the facts and outright lies that appeal to people’s primal fears.”

You see the same thing on newspaper editorial pages now. The AJC, in its bid to be “fair and balanced,” can’t even bring itself to take a stand without allowing someone to write a cliche-ridden, unresearched, oppositional rant in immediate reply. Time and again, studies have demonstrated that a consistent percentage of people are swayed by fact-free emotional assertions, especially if they arouse fear.

What is “fair and balanced” about allowing people to lie and distort the truth? It was almost shocking when the New York Times recently rejected John McCain’s reply to a column by Barack Obama. The reason, the editors told him, was that his reply didn’t address anything of actual substance in Obama’s column. (Of course, this leaves one wondering why they print Bill Kristol’s column once a week.)

I’m ranting.

My columns in Creative Loafing have been repeatedly truncated like all else in print journalism. I’ve tried to adjust but it was particularly hard with “Headcase,” whose earlier incarnation as “Paradigms” allowed me to take up some really complex subjects pertaining to psychology and culture.

Ironically, during the last two years, after completing the seven-year ordeal of getting a PhD, I’ve done more writing than psychological work, becoming poorer than I’ve been in many years.

The thing that stupefies me about the layoffs at Creative Loafing and the changing content of the paper is that it’s a complete reiteration of the ’80s. Back then, when I was editor, we continually battled over whether we should be doing reporting and analysis or focusing on so-called directional copy — telling readers where to go to do what. Judging by the homepage that CL has created, that is the direction it’s moving again.

I’m not saying this might not be necessary. When I edited Creative Loafing’s main competitor, the Atlanta Gazette in the late ’70s, as the market got more competitive, we moved more and more in the direction of celebrity journalism and directional copy ourselves. The Gazette eventually died but CL survived (after undergoing bankruptcy reorganization).

It goes without saying that directional copy is a lot cheaper to produce than original news and feature stories. This may be grandiose to ask, but who the hell is going to take the notion of the Fourth Estate seriously anymore? Time and again, we’ve seen how the media participated in the Iraq invasion by failing to challenge any of the (faked) data the Bush administration produced. The media continue to broadcast and print assertions of public officials without bothering to check them out.

And we all know that journalism, whether broadcast or print, is dedicated to entertainment now. It has very little to do with the Fourth Estate’s demand that journalists’ relationship to government officials be adversarial. Content is based on what (publishers think that) people find amusing. The only muckrakers around now are bloggers like Glenn Greenwald at Even comedians like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart do a better job of exposing the corrupt underbelly of the political class. True, their work adheres to the notion of journalism as entertainment, but employs biting satire (of the media themselves) instead of the maudlin or sensational that typifies most content today.

The Internet is the ideal place for the “new journalism.” I’ve cited McLuhan a good bit in my writing lately. His famous dictum that “the medium is the message” is pertinent here. With the Net, you mainly get not only the replacement of deep thinking by sound bytes and the gradual loss of substance. You also get the abiding sense that nothing is true. Anything you read in cyberspace can be immediately refuted, factually or not, by a site three clicks away. You also get so-called “trolls” commenting on a lot of stories. One of their favorite devices is to write scathing replies to assertions that the writer never even made, further eroding any notion of the truth.

I came of age during the Watergate era of investigative journalism. Arguably, our republic was saved by the work of journalists who exposed the corruption that had overtaken the White House. Incredibly, though, Nixon’s offenses were tiny compared to Bush’s, and the media, far from exposing Bush, has enabled his administration’s criminal and destructive actions, rarely reporting the truth until they are cornered by embarrassment. An example is the recent revelation that most of the “military specialists” employed by broadcast media directly benefit from painting a rosy picture of what’s happening in Iraq. With the exception of CNN, nobody would comment on this. See? The truth isn’t nearly as important as a gratifying lie.

I know this is a basically formless rant. I guess these layoffs at CL remind me of the diminishing quality of journalism everywhere. That in turn evokes a blend of nostalgia for journalism that took itself seriously and a terrible regret for the difficult life writers have in our society, especially those who want to do more than amuse readers with glib language and stenographic “reporting.”

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